Cradle of Venezuelan ruling party prepares for election re-run

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza speaks at the press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during their meeting in Moscow, Russia June 22, 2021. Yuri Kochetkov/Pool via REUTERS

BARINAS/CARACAS, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Voters in Barinas, a sparsely populated province in eastern Venezuela that the ruling Socialist Party has controlled for more than two decades, will return to polling places on Sunday to cast ballots in a do-over gubernatorial election.

The result of the re-run ordered by the supreme court will not upset ruling party control over a majority of governorships, but could be a symbolic victory for the fractured opposition in the home state of the late socialist President Hugo Chavez, analysts said.

The ruling party won 19 of 23 governorships in November, and has emphasized that its candidate Jorge Arreaza, a former foreign minister, is father of one of Chavez's grandchildren.

A victory for the opposition, which seemed within reach before original candidate Freddy Superlano was declared ineligible, would send a message that "Chavismo can be defeated under its own rules," said Ricardo Sucre, politics professor at the Central University of Venezuela.

The capital city, also called Barinas, has 600,000 eligible voters and Reuters witnesses said it appeared half-empty on Friday, with many businesses closed and few people on the streets.

"I agree that the (opposition coalition) won here," Miguel Garcia, a farmer from Sabaneta, birthplace of Chavez, told Reuters in an interview on Saturday.

"But since (the regime) is in power, they didn't hand anything over, they're repeating the elections to see what tricks they can play to win," he said.

Superlano claimed victory but was ruled unfit for public office because of pending administrative investigations.

The supreme court, seen by the opposition as biased toward the ruling party, then ordered a new vote, though it acknowledged the electoral commission projected a 0.39% margin of victory for Superlano against Argenis Chavez, the dead president's brother.

Chavez bowed out of the re-run and recognized the initial results.

"An opposition candidate won in a state that is of special symbolic and geopolitical important to Chavismo, so the top tribunal pulls a new election out of its sleeve," said Carmen Beatriz Fernandez, head of political consulting firm DataStrategia.

The new opposition candidate is local leader Sergio Garrido.

"This fight is like that in the Bible, the fight between David and Goliath," Garrido told Reuters in an interview on Friday. "David is the people of Barinas .... David eventually overcame Goliath, and the people of Barinas will also overcome that Goliath, which is the regime."

Barinas is strategic because it straddles border areas - where Colombian armed groups operate - and Venezuela's central provinces, said Rocio San Miguel, president of the Control Ciudadano observatory.

"Without (opposition) vigilance of polling places, there is no guarantee of the secrecy of the vote," she said.

Reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Barinas and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Oliver Griffin; Editing by Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio

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